Wednesday, July 8, 2020

When Governor Long Almost Lost His Mind

The sanity hearing for Gov. Earl Long took place in downtown Covington in June of 1959, some 61 years ago, and the week-long event is seared in the memories of many area residents. Not only because it dealt with the Governor of the state, not only because the hearing was being held in the gym at Covington Middle School, and but also because driving through the middle of town passed by the Southern Hotel where many associated events were taking place.The town was buzzing with activity.

The number of national new media reporters in attendance gave the goings-on a circus-like atmosphere, over and above the circus-like atmosphere of Louisiana politics at its finest.

Covington area resident and court reporter Vera Haik occupied a front row seat on the sanity hearing, and in a 1993 Times Picayune article she told her story of what it was like.

"On June 22, 1959, one of the hottest days I have ever lived through in St. Tammany Parish, a trial was held in the 22nd Judicial District Court, bringing reporters from all over the United States to Covington," she wrote. "More people came to this quiet country town than I had ever seen before or since, for the 'sanity hearing' of Governor Earl Long."

Her memorable experience began the night before, when Sheriff Red Erwin called her and announced that he would like to bring the governor to her house for breakfast the next day.

As a court reporter, that was going to be a big deal for her and her family.

Running short of breakfast makings (some 15 to 20 people were expected to be accompanying the governor), she called Bob Champagne of Champagne's Grocery and he opened up his store for her, so she could stock up on what she needed. In addition, she made arrangements with her housekeeper Alma White to pick her up early in the morning so she could help prepare the breakfast.

The governor was staying at a motel in Mandeville, so, as a diversion tactic, the sheriff had the governor's car driven from the motel in the opposite direction to lure the dozens of reporters away. Then they brought the governor to Haik's house on La. 21 just north of Claiborne Hill.

Breakfast went on as scheduled, but Haik had to leave at 9:30 to go to her job as court required her services. Court was being held at Covington Middle School because a new courthouse was being built downtown.

"There had to be 3,000 people in and around the court when I arrived," she wrote. "I almost had to be carried by the deputies to get inside the courtroom."

There was no air condition in the gym, and only a few electric fans, so it was hot, "so hot I am surprised that no one fainted," she said. "It seemed people were hanging from the ceiling."

The hearing began, lasted a "very short while," and the governor never took the stand, she noted. "In fact, he never came into the courtroom."

The politics of the situation was quite involved. "Long had fired Dr. Charles Belcher, head of Southeast Hospital at Mandeville (the mental health hospital) where Long had been committed. He had been committed by his estranged wife Blanche, which is a story all by itself. "Long then hired Dr. Jess McClendon, who declared Long sane," Haik reported.

"Since Long was not technically and legally insane, in effect there could not be a sanity hearing, nor could he be confined at Mandeville against his will, according to Long biographer Michael Kurtz," Haik wrote in her Times Picayune senior citizens column.

The case was dismissed, and Long was free to go. "As I was getting all my junk into my briefcase, one of the Associated Press reporters asked if I was Mrs. Haik, and I told him I was. He was extremely angry."

"You live next door to the Green Springs Motel? he asked, and I told him I did." The reporter then said, "We have been running all over St. Tammany Parish, and he was right next door."

Vera Haik smiled, and "I think that made him even angrier."

"Just one day, long ago, that is part of Covington's past. Another thing that makes it an interesting place to live," she concluded.